Friday, December 30, 2016

Books of the Year (Part V)

Books of the Year 5-1

5. Sixty, Ian Brown. A bittersweet, but mostly uplifting exploration of life at 60 written with a sardonic edge and (grudging) acceptance of the slow decline of old age. 

4. How To Be A Person In The World, Heather Havrliesky. The too-cool-for-school friend you had growing up who turned into a bad ass, strip-the-varnish off advice columnist (who also writes beautifully.) My full review 

3. I Never Knew That About New York, Christopher Winn. An encyclopedia tour of Manhattan, from the financial district all the way up to the Harlem River, that is equal parts history lesson and Fodor’s guide. Readers will become acquainted with landmarks, offered suggested neighborhood walking tours, and an abiding appreciation for the city that never sleeps. 

2. The Art of Rivalry, Sebastian Smee. A marvelous exploration of the relationships between giants of modern art. Less rivals than competitors and sometime collaborators, readers will relish the back-and-forth between de Kooning and Pollock, Picasso and Matisse, Freud and Bacon, and Manet and Degas. Smee’s writing is vibrant and leaps off the page as he takes readers into the parlors, salons, and studios of these iconic names. 

1. The Confidence Game, Maria Konnikova. An immersive deep dive into the world of con artists and how they dupe people into falling for their schemes. I found this book endlessly fascinating, thought provoking, and wonderfully written. My full review

The rest of the list can be found here:

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Books of the Year (Part IV)

Books of the Year 10-6

10. Blood in the Water, Heather Ann Thompson. Ms. Thompson’s exhaustive (and sometimes exhausting) history of the 1971 Attica riot and its aftermath is an absolute page turner. She not only delves into the causes of the riot, but gives a blow-by-blow of the four day siege, the negotiations, the “what ifs” (primarily ones related to why the government officials in charge did not continue negotiating when a deal seemed imminent), the retaking of the prison by force and the decades-long effort to get to the truth of what happened during those panicked few hours. I hate to say Thompson is “pro-inmate,” more accurately, she is “anti cover-up” which is mostly what happened but I felt as though in her zeal to (rightly) point the finger at those in power who tried to sweep the devastation under the rug, she was a bit too willing to give a free pass to the inmates who incited the riot. 

9. The Time Traveler’s Handbook: 18 Experiences From the Eruption of Vesuvius to Woodstock, James Wyllie, Johnny Acton, and David Goldblatt. As the title suggests, this smart and engaging book takes readers back to certain times in history, offering an experiential description of what it might be like if you were cruising Hamburg, Germany when The Beatles first performed there, hanging out in Xanadu with Marco Polo, or observing the First Battle of Bull Run. The book is meticulously researched down to the types of food you might have eaten or clothes you would have worn during each of these times in history. The publisher also printed this book on heavy bond paper with many illustrations, adding to the reader’s overall enjoyment.

8. Dreamland, Sam Quinones. If you’re interested in understanding the economics of the drug trade in America, dig into this excellent book about how heroin and its lagging indicator, opiate painkillers, have decimated entire communities in our country. My full review

7. Evicted, Poverty and Profit in the American City, Matthew Desmond. After you have learned how the drug trade has basically destroyed huge swaths of Ohio, West Virginia, and other parts of the country, boogie on up to Milwaukee to find out how rapacious landlords take advantage of poor people while suckling at the government teat. 

6. American Heiress, Jeffrey Toobin. The Patty Hearst kidnapping is now relegated to distant 70s lore, somewhere near pet rocks and the 8-track cassette deck in our collective memory, but Toobin brings the story back to life, placing it in the context of the low-level domestic terrorism that would seem disturbing today, and wraps it all up in a convincing argument that Hearst’s privilege and willingness to shade the truth ultimately allowed her to (mostly) escape justice while her comrades in arms spent years, if not decades in prison. My full review

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Books of the Year (Part III)

Books of the Year 16-11

16. The Wilderness, McKay Coppins. A worthy effort had Marco Rubio been nominated for President, not Donald Trump. My full review

15. Shrill, Notes From A Loud Woman, Lindy West. A ballsy, unabashed, and raw memoir from one of today’s strongest feminist voices. West’s book largely hits the mark though there were a few points when I wish she had not risen to the troll bait. Highly recommended.

14. Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen, Mary Norris. A book for every schoolmarm, grammarian, and english usage nerd out there. Norris writes beautifully and with a panache you will envy if you did not like her so much.

13. The Fix: How Nations Survive & Thrive In A World In Decline, Jonathan Tepperman. Life hacks from far away places where corruption once reigned, civil war raged or material resources limited a nation’s capacity for economic growth and a few other things in between. Tepperman shares case studies from around the globe - post-Rwandan reconciliation and South Korean economic revival, Brazil’s experiment with direct payments to the poor and our own country’s investment in natural gas fracking to illustrate how (and why) leadership can transform a society’s fortunes. 

12. Ghettoside, Jill Leovy. Solving murders and understanding why violence in impoverished areas of Los Angeles is so hard to do. My full review

11. How To Be Miserable: 40 Strategies You Already Use, Dr. Randy Paterson. By far the best of the self-help books I read this year. Dr. Paterson’s conceit is taking that which you do and makes you unhappy as a jumping off point for the not-so-radical idea that perhaps doing something different (or the opposite) might help. 

Monday, December 26, 2016

Books of the Year (Part II)

Books of the Year 25-17

25. Dead Presidents, Brady Carlson. How they died, why it matters, and the manner we honor them, from Lincoln’s god-like esteem to the forgotten ones like Chet Arthur. 

24. Seinfeldia: How A Show About Nothing Changed Everything, Jennifer Armstrong. Another book I was fully prepared to love and only liked. My full review

23. Your Favorite Band Is Killing Me, Steven Hyden. A book made up of the arguments you used to have in your dorm room (or at the bar) about whether DLR Van Halen was better than Van Hagar, Nirvana vs. Pearl Jam, etc. My full review

22. Going Red: The Two Million Voters Who Will Elect the Next President & How Conservatives Can Win Them, Ed Morrissey. Right wing writer identifies eight counties that will tilt the election (turns out he was mostly right). Who knew. 

21. Ike’s Bluff, Evan Thomas. Thomas argues that Ike’s subtle form of leadership, a combination of playing possum, playing dumb, and having the benefit of everyone knowing you led the largest land invasion in the history of the world, saved mankind from any number of bad outcomes while he was President.

20. Life Moves Pretty Fast: The Lessons We Learned From Eighties Movies, Hadley Freeman. I’m pro-80s nostalgia in all its various iterations and forms. 

19. We Were Feminists Once, Andi Zeisler. Consumerism killed feminism (and other observations). My full review

18. Andy Warhol Was A Hoarder: Inside the Minds of History’s Great Personalities, Claudia Kalb. A little post hoc mental health assessment of some people you may have heard of - Marilyn Monroe (borderline personality), Charles Darwin (anxiety), etc. Pithy and enjoyable. 

17. 50 Great American Places: Essential Historic Sites Across the U.S., Brent D. Glass. A wonderful survey of interesting places right here in the good old U.S. of A. 

Books of the Year (Part I)

Books Of The Year 35-26

35. Too Dumb To Fail, Matt K. Lewis. Flaccid musings of a Weekly Standard Republican rendered moot by the rise of Trump. My full review

34. The Man’s Guide to Women, Douglas Abrams and John Gottman. Advice so banal, I do not remember any of it.

33. The Life Changing Magic of Not Giving A Fuck, Sarah Knight. Ditto.

32. The Lion in the Living Room, Abigail Tucker. Cat owner writes book about how awful it is that we own cats. My full review

31. Life Reimagined: The Science, Art & Opportunity of Midlife, Barbara Bradley Hagerty. Why can’t I get paid to take a two-year sojourn through what upper middle class white people do between ages 40 and 60? My full review 

30. How to See, David Salle. I really wanted to like this book because I love art, but most of the essays discuss artists only true aficionados know. Salle is a beautiful writer, he was just opining on people and work I had never heard of and could not care less about. 

29. The World According to Star Wars, Cass Sunstein. Stretching to find metaphors for life in the storylines of one of the most popular movie franchises in history should have produced a more interesting tome, but alas, no such luck. Plus, way too much discussion of the prequel trilogy most people rightly hold in as low regard as The Godfather III

28. Whistlestop, My Favorite Stories From Presidential History, John Dickerson. A few interesting anecdotes (the chapters on Ed Muskie and George Wallace are particularly strong) barely lift this otherwise forgettable recitation of presidential campaign stories familiar to anyone who has cracked a book about American history. 

27. The Best Worst President: What the Right Gets Wrong About Barack Obama, Mark Hannah. Reads like the work product of a Media Matters intern who tried to turn a white paper into a full-length book. 

26. F*ck Feelings, Dr. Michael Bennett and Sarah Bennett. Life is shitty and people are too. Amen. My full review

Saturday, December 10, 2016

TV Review - The Girlfriend Experience

It has been said that we have three lives - our public life, our private life, and our secret life. The first is what the rest of the world sees, the second, reserved for our family and friends, and the last what we keep hidden away. Properly calibrated, these elements blend harmoniously, if not always seamlessly. What happens when this balance is off kilter is the subject of Starz TV’s extraordinary drama The Girlfriend Experience

The show takes its title and the barest outline of its plot from the Steven Soderbergh movie of the same name. Adapted for television, we meet second-year law student Christine Reade, who just landed an internship at a prominent law firm and dreams of a career as a patent attorney but is enticed into selling her body by her classmate Avery, who has connected with a wealthy businessman taking care of her every need. 

The show quickly finds its stride with confident writing, directing, and acting. Avery melts down shortly after we meet her and a former boyfriend is seen briefly in the show’s pilot and never heard from again. Christine is unbothered by the moral ambiguity of her work, but her motivations are never fully revealed. Sure, there is some aspect of the struggling law student about her, but money does not appear to be the primary driver. Is it power? Control? Even as she connects with a madam who books her clients, Christine chafes at the 30% fee she is charged. Why not just do it all herself? 

A show exploring a taboo subject like prostitution could easily fall into kitsch or cliché, but in a drama such as this, which relies almost entirely on the strength of its lead actress, casting Riley Keough was critical. She is fearless and brilliant, and not just in the raw, almost pornographic sex scenes that populate nearly every episode, but in expressing inexorable ambition that shifts from dreams of a high powered legal career into ones of being a high powered escort. As her silent passenger on that trip, it is easy for viewers to judge or question, but Keough’s performance is too self-assured to be second guessed. Because Christine is such a practiced liar, little if any of what we see or hear from her can be taken at face value. There is always an angle, a hustle, another option she is exploring, turning over the possibilities in her head like a Texas Hold ‘Em player considering an opponent’s bet. Even in the midst of the season’s major pivot point, the reveal of an incriminating video of her with a client, it is difficult to discern whether the panic attack she has is an act to garner pity or a legitimate reaction to her entire life getting nuked. 

Keough’s cipher-like ability made me think of her character as an interesting counter point to Mad Men’s Don Draper. Don constantly strove to hide the flawed, insecure man and dark secrets that haunted him. Christine acknowledges the artifice and leaves it to others to engage in the self-delusion necessary for them to believe she is, pick your poison, attracted to them, interested in what they have to say, or engaged on any level. Whereas Don used his shiny veneer as a sleight of hand to avoid having anyone try to get beneath the surface, Christine throws it in your face with a blinking red light warning you not to look. Like Don, Christine is an admitted loner who does not feel or process emotions in the way others do and has no friends. Her choice of profession forces her to fake her feelings, but she is adept at the charade, turning on her persona when the door opens and shutting it off as soon as she walks back out until it is time to start the act all over again.

Beyond the interpersonal sex, there is the underlying theme of isolation. Masturbation, that lonely form of sexual gratification that was for so long treated like a dirty unspoken secret, is a central act in the show. Mostly it is Christine doing the diddling, often with a man watching, but at a remove, via a computer screen. It allows for connection but not intimacy. It is only when she is alone with her own thoughts that the act feels erotic and not mechanical. 

Her clients have their own shaming instincts - the series finale is centered around an elaborate cuckold role play where her client dashes off to the bathroom to jack off as Christine and a man paid to be her “boyfriend” have sex on a couch. Other clients ask her to leave as soon as the sex is over, riddled with their own issues of guilt or impropriety. It is heavy stuff and mining these darker recesses of our secret lives can be uncomfortable viewing. Faced with the things we desire, GFE flips the script and asks what you are willing to sacrifice in the service of snuffing out your loneliness or unhappiness or indulge your own hedonism. 

The show’s icy sterility only serves to enhance that sense of isolation. Interiors either have the shaded look of a David Fincher movie or are European modernist, geometry in stainless steel, prefab plastic or marble. The hotels and buildings are awash in floor to ceiling windows and city scape panoramas that enhance the voyeuristic vibe of the show. The conversations are clipped, staccato, and invariably transactional. Layered over all of it is an ethereal soundtrack that jibes with the ultra modernist look. It is arresting and eye catching, a style and sensibility that matches the rest of the show’s production.

If I have one critique of this otherwise outstanding freshman effort it is, to borrow from the subject matter of the show, that it blew its load a bit too quickly. Instead of amping up the intrigue and suspense of whether Christie could juggle the demands of law school, her internship, and her side gig as an escort, the worlds collide a little more than halfway through the season when a jilted client leaks a video of Christine having sex with him to her co-workers and family and Christine retaliates against the managing partner at the law firm (who she also slept with) by releasing a video of the two of them having sex. 

The remaining episodes have the feel of an uneven coda. The guy who leaked the video that ends up blowing up Christine’s life is not seen again and David, the managing partner at the firm who is fired in the wake of Christine’s launching of her own nukes (their sex video) is left dangling as he interviews for other jobs. The case he was colluding on is left unresolved as is his replacement at the top of the firm’s hierarchy. Instead, we get an episode focused on Christine’s return home (to a stern, angry mother and a slightly more sympathetic father) and a teaser of the direction she intends to go - further down the escorting rabbit hole (she withdraws from law school with no plans to return) and with a wider menu of activities. 

During a side jaunt to Toronto in the wake of her exposure, Christine ends up in a weird hotel scene with two other escorts and a coked-to-the-gills client. The following day she and one of the other women meet for a drink and they lament their respective situations - Christine is trying to build a customer base while the other woman, a six year veteran, is trying to shed clients but the lure of easy money is too great. It is a not-so-subtle effort at the cautionary tale, a warning to get out while you still can, but The Girlfriend Experience makes clear the journey is just beginning.

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